What’s Disgusting? Union-Busting!

We pedaled in single file, hugging the curb to avoid the trucks. And there was the rally! The spring clothes were bright, the air loud with hip-hop. Some women were selling fruit. Drivers were honking support. The ALU’s logo, three fists thrusting up from an open box, snatched the alienated mojo from the huge boxlike buildings stuffed with billions of smaller boxes and transformed it into solidarity and joy.

A rally at Amazon’s LDJ5 facility

Photo of Bernie Sanders and Chris Smalls
Photograph by Paul Liotta/Staten Island Advance

Paul and I set off Sunday for a boat trip and short bike ride to the botanic gardens at Snug Harbor on Staten Island. But waiting for the ferry we met three cyclists who were on their way to the Amazon union rally. The event was a celebration. On April 1, the scrappy independent Amazon Labor Union won its drive to unionize the 8,300-employee JFK8 fulfillment center here—the first union victory after fifteen years of heartbreaking efforts at Amazon. Around the country, hopes were lifted for a rebirth of labor organizing. Now the ALU was kicking off a second round of voting, this time among the 1,500 union-eligible workers at LDJ5, the “sortation center” across the street, and its friends were arriving to cheer it on.

The rally promised a far more exciting afternoon than one spent strolling amid the cherries and quinces at the former home for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.” So we introduced ourselves to one another as we boarded: Blair, a lean and muscular retiree in a green-and-yellow DC 37 T-shirt; his wife, Marina, a chatty, compact housing organizer in her fifties; Anabelle, a union employee who wore an ACT UP T-shirt under her jacket and a rainbow flag draped from the back of her helmet; my partner, Paul, a Vermont economic think tank director; and me (I offered bona fides as a founder, back in 1981, of the National Writers Union). When we’d disembarked on the other side of the harbor, Blair led our little peloton, setting a pace and performing leader-like hand gestures, such as snaking his right arm behind his back and flipping his wrist on the left side, indicating (I think) a left-hand turn. I pedaled after him, followed by Anabelle, flag flapping behind her. At the rear, chatting as they rode, were Marina and Paul, who was feeling pokey due to a bad back.

We rode past gigantic shipyard cranes, innumerable shopping malls, housing projects and tidy single-family houses, and almost as many taquerias as pizzerias—signs that Richmond County is no longer a gated community for white cops and Mafiosi.

The Staten Island facility is one of Amazon’s “last mile” operations, where worker drones toil around the clock, sacrificing body and sanity to the sacred Prime pledge that your kitchen gadget will arrive at your doorstep within two days. It is located in the Matrix Global Logistics Park, at the swampy western edge of the island, 8.4 miles from the ferry terminal, a 48-minute bus ride at best across two major highways, and as far as you can go before falling into the Arthur Kill channel that separates New York from Middlesex County, New Jersey. One of the union’s demands is a free shuttle.

The Matrix Global Logistics Park looks as dystopian as it sounds. Rising suddenly from a parting in the marsh rushes along Gulf Avenue, it is entered with a ninety-degree turn from potholed public macadam onto the impeccable gray asphalt of private property. The flat, open tract features four nearly windowless gray warehouses, three of which—a total of 2,280,000 square feet—are Amazon’s. Sleek blue smile-bedecked eighteen-wheelers roll ceaselessly in and out. Every place that’s not paved is watery. Mallards glide through the litter-clotted swamps. Canada geese strut, squawk, and shit on the road shoulders.

We pedaled in single file, hugging the curb to avoid the trucks. And there was the rally! The spring clothes were bright, the air loud with hip-hop. Some women were selling fruit. Drivers were honking support. The ALU’s logo, three fists thrusting up from an open box, snatched the alienated mojo from the huge boxlike buildings stuffed with billions of smaller boxes and transformed it into solidarity and joy. Watching over the whole thing was the enormous pink blow-up Pig, brother/sister/sibling (as the speakers were nonbinarily putting it) of Scabby the Rat, who also travels with union picketers wherever they go.

The ALU could hardly have invented an adversary more piggish than Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos. In 2021, while Bezos, second richest person in human history, was tooling around outer space at a cost of $1.38 billion a minute, US Amazon workers were making $15 an hour—$18.45 in New York, which is three bucks and change above the state’s minimum wage and less than half the local living wage for a single adult with a child. At the same time, the company was outspending any of its rivals in defending its empire of semi-robotized sweat shops from the union horde. At the rally, a Latinx worker with luxuriant shoulder-length black tresses said he’d quit three times, unable to sustain the quota of 400 “picks” per hour, ten hours a day. Another speaker pointed to the parking lot behind him, its entrance patrolled by guards in neon yellow and orange vests. Some employees sleep there in their cars, he remarked, thanks to the onerous commute and irregular shifts, which range from three to twelve hours and often don’t add up to a full-time job. In 2021, IRS filings show, the company paid its union-busting consultants $3,200 a day. On Sunday, outside JFK8, rectangular black-on-white signs spiked the sky, demanding a dignified round number: $30 an hour.

The crowd was as diverse as they come—in age, race, tattoo coverage, fashion acuity, adherence to heteronormativity. Virtually every union in New York City and beyond was represented. Sara Nelson, the kickass leader of the Association of Flight Attendants, said her members were flying over the rally, raining down solidarity from above. Thick-necked guys in satin bomber jackets embroidered with the Teamsters’ logo (two yoked horses atop a wagon wheel) rubbed shoulders with the multigendered denizens of the ALU. Cheerfully tolerating a general anti­­–Big Labor vibe, some of the most established of the AFL-CIO Establishment, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, made appearances. So did the progressive political aristocracy. That morning, Bernie had hugged AOC.

The press has played up the ALU’s David versus Goliath narrative. But its founder, chief organizer, and president, Christian Smalls, acknowledged the support of the Teamsters and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (which has tried to unionize Harlem Whole Foods, also owned by Amazon, and the fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, where the results of a close second vote are in limbo as the National Labor Relations Board examines a second filing of union complaints of illegal interference by Amazon). The powerful Teamsters International is vying to organize the rest of Amazon’s nearly one million US employees—one out of every 169 American workers. Fighting a company of that size, whose management culture has for years been poisoned by antiunion animus, will require the clout and resources of the big and the shop-floor credibility and agility of the small.

But that’s tomorrow’s challenge. On Sunday, the brisk air vibrated with militant rank-and-file socialist unionism. Along with his trademark sunglasses, Smalls sported a red, black, and orange jacket emblazoned with Eat the Rich in letters big enough to be read from Amazon national headquarters in Seattle. He introduced Charles Jenkins, the grizzle-bearded never-less-than-electrifying veteran agitator from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Jenkins called Jeff Bezos “Jeff Bozo.” He told tales of subway strikes past and a “from the base” worker power surge on the horizon. It was hard to read Smalls’s emotions behind the glasses and full-face mask, but he had to feel proud, standing like a sort of union little brother to this subway-tunnel Che.

There was talk of hitting Amazon more directly in the pocketbook. Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a Staten Island­–born Afghanistan War veteran turned anti-war and community organizer running in the Democratic primary for Congress, trashed the corporate welfare boondoggle called the “industrial development agreement,” or IDA, that New York struck with Amazon. In exchange for more than $400 million in subsidies, Amazon is supposed to create an unspecified number of jobs, obey state labor laws, and, even more vaguely, stimulate the local economy. As usual, the public is paying for a bunch of shitty low-paying positions. The company is flouting every labor law on the books. And as for Staten Island’s economy, well, an Amazon worker would have to trek longer than the duration of a lunch break to find a deli where she might buy a sandwich. “I want my fuckin’ 400 million bucks back,” DeBarros bellowed. We whooped.

It was getting late. Anabelle had disappeared into the crowd. Blair and Marina weren’t ready to leave; “this is his happy place,” Marina said. So Paul and I said goodbye, unlocked our bikes, and pedaled out of the Matrix. I felt my tires bump over what I realized was a large splotch of flesh and feathers: a dead and decomposing goose, perhaps victim of one of those eighteen-wheel behemoths.

But I was not inspired to conjure a sour metaphor from the flattened bird. Behind us, juicy New York accents were still pouring into the mike. The crowd was singing out: “What’s disgusting?” “Union-busting!” “ALU, I love you!” had morphed to “ALU, we love you!” Earlier, an organizer had quoted The Grapes of Wrath: “This is the beginning—from ‘I’ to ‘we.’” A hand-lettered placard luffed above a tableful of sectarian socialist flyers: Unionize the World! it read. The idea didn’t seem altogether impractical.

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